Native Village Youth and Education News
January 1, 2009 Issue 193 Volume 2

Kootenai Tribal Chair Stresses Education for Tribe's Future

Kootenai Reservation, Idaho: Since elected three years ago as one of the youngest Tribal chairs to lead the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, Jennifer Porter has been determined to make education the primary focus for the Tribe’s 25 children. More than anything, the mother of three in her mid-30s has been trying to buck the trend of Tribal children leaving school by the 10th grade.

So far, Porter is succeeding.

“I am so very proud of our Kootenai Tribal children,” says Porter, who was born on the Navajo Reservation in Fort Defiance, Ariz. “I want every one of them to graduate high school and receive further degrees. This is so very important. We have 25 children attending public school, and in the past, the sophomore level has traditionally been the grade most of them leave. I’m trying to reverse that trend.”

Porter — who took over for Tribal Chair Gary Aitken, Sr. in 2005 — understands Tribal polices and the workings of the 142-member Kootenai Tribe as well as anyone. When she was 23, she replaced her late uncle on the Tribal Council, which she served on for more than a decade. She says she was stunned when she heard her name announced as a nominee for Tribal Chair.

“My mouth fell open when (the late) Chief Raymond Abraham nominated me for the position,” she recalls. “I looked around in amazement at my mother with a big ‘What?’ formed on my lips, but before I could say anything Chief Abraham closed the nomination, called for a vote and the next thing I knew I was being congratulated.”

“It’s hectic being the Tribal Chair, but I have settled in,” she says. “I am one of those people who are very goal-oriented and try to accomplish what I have set out to achieve.”

Along with her seemingly endless duties as Tribal Chair — from overseeing Tribal departments to dealing with federal and state officials on environmental and monetary issues — Porter has thrown every ounce of energy into developing a youth program for the Tribe’s children that emphasizes positive reinforcement around their educational achievements. Formed two years ago, the group meets once each quarter.

“It’s about recognizing their achievements and honoring them for what they have accomplished,” says Porter, who also served 11 years on the nine-member Tribal Council “It’s such positive energy for them. Each child hears a quote from his/her teacher, which is read out loud. It’s very special for each child to hear that kind of reinforcement. They love it, and they are buying into the program.”

Porter admits stepping into the position was overwhelming at first.

“I couldn’t do this or accomplish what I have done without the support of the Tribe’s 41 staff members,” she says. “I have the absolute best staff of anyone, anywhere around.”

Porter wants the community to understand that Tribal members are all equal.

“In the old days, everyone who was born had a purpose, but that belief had faded away some over the years,” she says. “Now we are working with our kids to re-instill that mindset. We want our future to remain strong and to continue to move forward with the pride that we are the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.”

Currently, there are three freshmen and two sophomores attending Bonners Ferry High School.

“It’s the most we’ve ever had in high school at one time,” says Porter, the daughter of former Tribal Chair Velma Bahe, who served three four-year terms. “Most drop out when they’re sophomores. I’m really committed to not having that happen anymore.”

Porter’s commitment to the education of Tribal children is boundless. She has been working hand-in-hand with the Native Wellness Institute in Gresham, Ore. to bring in speakers to talk about education, parenting and health, along with a variety of other issues. Representatives from the institute came four times last year, and Porter says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We’re really trying to reach out to encompass the spiritual, mental and physical levels of all our members, similar to the principles of the Medicine Wheel,” says Porter, who is half-Navajo and half-Kootenai. “To make an impact on our children and the community, we have to follow the path of the Medicine Wheel as an example. What we are trying to emphasize is that we are the Kootenai Tribe and represent the future. One day our children will go on to lead this tribe.”

At least once a month, Porter says Tribal children participate in a planned activity like bowling. Whatever the function, she says she particularly enjoys seeing the excitement on their faces.

“I find myself caring for the Tribal children as if they are my own,” she says. “I am very proud of them.”

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